Motivation – Throwing Away The Carrots & The Sticks

November 4, 2015

Coaching Tips, Leadership Insights


I’ve managed people most of my career, and I’ve worked in teams all my life. If you had asked me early in my leadership career what motivates someone at work I would have probably told you either having a good salary or maybe having a spiffy title. And of course who doesn’t think a big bonus is motivating? To effectively lead people, I thought you needed carrots and sticks in the right balance for motivation to work. Somehow in my gut I knew that it was too simplistic, and soon my own experience managing people started to disprove that theory. My anecdotal experience and observations about trying to motivate with financial rewards, promotions and titles: Rewards became an expectation for baseline performance instead of improving performance! I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard people complain about their bonus payments. Now, some of you may have read a book called Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The author Daniel Pink, a bit of a leadership guru, has helped me see what really motivates people. In his book Pink talks about the evolution of motivation from survival instincts, to the carrot and stick methodology, to what he calls Motivation 3.0. This latest notion replaces carrots and sticks with values and purpose.

What I found most interesting is how convincing Pink is in proving that the carrot and stick approach to motivation doesn’t work, especially in work that is complex, requires creativity or involves problem solving. Pink demonstrates that these traditional short-term motivators actually reduce creativity, and foster very short-term thinking at the expense of long-term results.

What really motivates people?

Pink argues:

  • Autonomy – the desire to direct your own life;
  • Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and
  • Purpose – to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Since I left the world of government and big corporations to start my own business working with talented leaders to help them reach greater success, I’ve had a chance to further test this theory. By diving in with my clients, exploring with them what really gets them going and works with staff I’ve come to believe that Pink has it right. Don’t take my word for it — give this a try: Grab a sheet of paper and make two columns. Label the first one “What I Liked” and the second one “How I Felt.” The first thing I’m going to ask you to do is to think of a leader you liked. Go ahead and close your eyes for just a moment and think about that great leader, the one you really admired. This leader could be a mentor in your business, a former boss, or maybe even a teacher or professor who once taught you. Now take a minute to jot down in the first column what you liked about this leader. Now, in the next column, take a moment to write how they made you feel. Go ahead, take a moment and reflect on what you’ve written before you continue.

Okay, now let’s think of the opposite. On the back of your sheet of paper again put two columns, only this time label them “What I Didn’t Like” and “How I Felt.”

Think back to a time where you’ve had a leader in your life – again could be a former employer, manager, professor or even a colleague. The kind of person no matter what they were paid, it was too much. Think of someone you wanted to help find a new job – in a competing firm! In the first column jot down what you didn’t like about this person. Take a moment to be very descriptive.

Now think about how it felt to be around this person. Try to remember how you felt inside, and record these feelings in the second column.

Now, when you look at those lists you know in your heart what great leadership is. For the good leader you’ve likely written down things like “inspiring,” “really challenged me” or “helped me find my way.” Maybe you mentioned “respect” or that this leader “gave good feedback.” Chances are you didn’t write “paid me well” or “gave big bonuses.”

In the case of your example of “that other guy” you may have written things like “made me feel small,” “criticized,” “didn’t help,” or even “they were a bully.”

When I’ve done this exercise with clients I’ve had many respond with “I was bored working for him,” “she micromanaged me” or they said the leader was a “perfectionist.”

There are two key points to consider when we look at the lists under our two types of leaders: We know in our hearts what great leadership looks like and we get a sense of the motivators we need to provide to be a good leader.

An effective leader motivates by building relationships. How does a good leader build relationships? Not with carrots and sticks, but by one conversation at a time.

Our coaching question for you today is: How can you change the motivators for your team, to inspire them — and you — to greatness?


Patrick O’Reilly, EDGE 3 Contributor

Patrick is a Certified Executive Coach and Owner/Principal Consultant of Padraig Coaching & Consulting based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  For more information, visit: